Book Review: Supper Club by Lara Williams

Supper Club – Lara Williams (Putnam, 2019)

I received an Advance Readers’ Copy of this book. Its publication date is July 9, 2019.

Some books that focus on food make you so hungry you have to eat while reading, holding the book in one hand, moving food into your mouth with the other. Other books about food repulse you, make all food unappealing and leave you not wanting to eat until you put the book behind you. For me, Supper Club was the latter.

If you’re a fan of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine or Otessa Moshfegh’s Eileen (or her newer My Year of Rest and Relaxation from what I understand, though I haven’t read it) then you will probably enjoy Supper Club and its sumptuous extravagance, its lingering gaze on uncomfortable moments and its harsh but honest look at female sexuality and friendships. But while I didn’t dislike either of those novels, they left me uncomfortable and a bit confused and that’s the same feeling I had with Lara Williams’ novel.

Am I uncomfortable because I am uncomfortable reading about sex like this? Yes, a little bit. Am I confused because female friendships are not usually portrayed this way? Because my closest relationship since I was twenty-one has been with a man? Yes, maybe. But I think what makes me hesitate about books like this, books that are clearly trying to say something Big and Important about feminism and a woman’s place in the world is that they seem to tell their stories as if this is It. This is the book that finally tells us what the Female Experience is. But it’s not my female experience. It’s a true one and a valid one and there are definitely things here I recognize but it is not the only version.

Our main character is Roberta. At the time of the book’s main events, she is just under thirty and drifting through life. She has a decent job that she enjoys but isn’t anything impressive. She has no friends and hasn’t been in a relationship in years. She likes to cook a lot. In alternating chapters, Roberta details her years at university. Her alienation there, her loss of virginity, her relationship with an older man. She senses that life is passing her by and wonders if, somehow, she is not worthy of what everyone else seems to have.

Then, at 28, she meets Stevie. The two women bond instantly, forming a close, co-dependent, almost sensual friendship. The kind of friendship that is more common between fourteen-year-olds but kind of makes sense here because Stevie and Robert both seem stunted in various ways. Together they form the Supper Club, recruiting a few other women to join them in regular feast nights.

At Supper Club they eat past satiation, they feast until they vomit. They drink. They consume. They use drugs and take off their clothes. They dance. They dress outrageously. They gain weight and enjoy the feel of the extra heft of their bodies. They refuse to make themselves smaller. They take up space.

I like the idea. I like what Williams is trying to say here – women are so often conditioned to make themselves smaller, to move out of the way. From a young age we are told it is important to be aware of not just how you look but how you are perceived. What does that person think of you? What about that person? Women are too often told to make themselves smaller, both figuratively and physically. We are taught to apologize, to make way. And so, Supper Club explores what it might look like if you just stopped all that. And once you do, can you still return to the trappings of normal life? Can you have a normal relationship with a man when you are so caught up in this single female friendship?

Neither Roberta nor Stevie are particularly likeable, but that’s kind of the point. No one loves them as much as they love each other. Or at least that’s what Roberta thinks. In the end, I wasn’t sure what I wanted for Roberta – or even what she wanted for herself. The ending Williams offers is satisfyingly ambiguous. So while the novel left me uncomfortable, I also think that’s the point of it and there is plenty to think on here.

17 thoughts on “Book Review: Supper Club by Lara Williams”

  1. I’ve got this on my 20 Books of Summer list but know very little about it, so your review makes me want to read it even more. It sounds as though there’s some deliberate queer tension here, as if what you describe as “a normal relationship with a man” in the final paragraph of your review might be exactly what Williams is suggesting her characters don’t need, or are exploring outside of, particularly with the almost adolescent closeness of Roberta and Stevie? That’s definitely what the description of their relationship made me think of – boarding school stories about close female friendships that are basically redolent of sexuality, just not the hetero kind.

    1. Yes, that’s definitely an undertone here. Without giving too much away, “normal” relationship here means what Roberta thinks she wants, or even what she thinks she’s supposed to want. Whether Stevie is what she needs or not is left to the reader, I think, but questioning the roles society and social norms tell women they should fill is very much at the heart of the novel. I’ll be very curious to hear what you think if/when you read it.

  2. Hmm… interesting concept and there’s no doubt about the conditioning we all undergo to meet society’s expectations. But I’m more and more aware of strands of feminism that seem as domineering as any patriarchy ever was, and that seem equally determined to tell us what women should be, do, think. In fact, liberal and illiberal seem to be becoming synonymous these days – double-think! I’m glad she left it ambiguous at the end – at least that leaves some room for readers to have differing viewpoints…

    1. Yes, I think that would be a fair reaction to a book like this. It’s not presented as being the answer and there are a fair number of ambiguities so I think the reader gets to decide how they want to take it. It makes for an interesting discussion though!

  3. This was a really helpful review – I’ve been kind of on the fence about this one but you’ve just convinced me that it’s going to be my kind of book! I wasn’t the biggest Eleanor Oliphant fan but I absolutely adore Moshfegh, and I just love books that leave the reader feeling slightly uncomfortable for whatever reason. It sounds like there are some great ideas in here, hopefully I’ll get on with the execution!

    1. Thanks! I’m glad to hear that. I think you probably will like this one but I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts if/when you read it!

  4. Your review has actually made me want to read this book. I recently finished Convenience Store Woman, which people called quirky and witty, but I found the message quite abusive. Really, I was looking for something about women who are told to be one way and instead do something totally different. People did mention that the Eleanor Oliphant book was similar to the Convenience Store Woman book, so I think I will check this one out!

    1. I’d be really interested to hear your take on this one. The main character’s weight is an on-going focus and her changing attitude toward it is interesting to observe, though not always positive.

    2. Not exactly…there was a hyperawareness of her body and the physical space she took up. When she talks about herself being thin it sounds gaunt and unhealthy, almost like starvation. When she gains weight it is an almost aggressive act, a new way to take control of her body. But either way it still seems to be primarily about how other people view her body, rather than what Roberta herself wants.

  5. How come I haven’t even heard of this book? It sounds like I would like it, although I know what you mean about particular books portraying a particular experience as the only experience. Especially this one, being it deals with a white middle class woman-or am I wrong about that?

    1. I don’t know why you haven’t heard of it – you should have! It’s set in London and yes, both main characters are white middle class women.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s